To the modern eye, the minor Jewish fast days would seem trivial and stupid, probably because they are. Not Yom Kippur when we're held accountable for our sins, nor Tisha B'Av when we commemorate the destruction of the two Temples - the double singular event that occurred on the same day and define modern Judaism, but Ta'anits like Tzom Gedaliah the day after Rosh Hashana ends to commemorate the assassination of a governor of Judah three millennia ago, or Shiva'Asar b'Tammuz, which on the one hand is the day Moses broke the two tablets. But that's not the reason we fast on Shiva-Asar b'Tammuz. The reason is that this is supposedly a day when terrible things keep happening in Judaism. It's not the day of the Temple's destruction but the daily sacrificial offering ceased to be brought because the walls of Jerusalem were breached! It's the day the Roman General Apostamus, my god, burned a Torah Scroll! It was the day an idol was erected in the Temple!
It's impossible to have any idea how significant or trivial these events seemed at the time, but with the distance of twenty-five hundred years, this all seems a bit much. If you affixed a fast day to every Jewish tragedy of that importance, when would Jews eat?
But the tenth day of Tevet, Assarah B'Tevet, is the stupidest. It's apparently not enough to have a fast day for the destruction of the Temple on the Tenth day of Tevet, we need a fast day too for when the walls of the city were breached. Fine enough. It also commemorates the two days before. The eighth - Shmoneh b'Tammuz when the Bible was first translated into Greek, apparently thereby etoliating the Bible of its divine spirit emanating from the Hebrew original. That seems debatable, but one can understand why this would be a tragedy as it would strip Jews of their of sole dominion over their holy book and cause Christian dominion over them. But the kicker is the ninth - Tisha b'Tammuz, of which the text of the Shulchan Aruch literally says "Something happened, but we do not know what it was."
The Jewish calendar frankly needs some updating. To have fast days for the assassination of Gedaliah and Apostatamus burning a Torah Scroll is seriously unprioritized when there's no fast for the Shoah or the Alhambra Decree. But whenever fast days occur, they result in a fate against which all Jewish mothers strenuously warn and fight against like a dybbuk at the door. Eat, you'll have low blood sugar." "You're just mad because you have low blood sugar." "I told you not to play sports or do your homework or give that presentation when your blood sugar is low!" The symptoms of the dreaded low blood sugar include cold sweating, dizziness and headache, rapid heartbeat, slurred speech, and muscle twitches. But while every Jewish mother secretly believes her child is about to die, none think it'll be from that. What they're really looking for is personality changes, confusion and irritability, anxiety and inability to concentrate, and to keep their children from these future-damaging symptoms, they're willing to tolerate an extra thirty or forty pounds on their growing boys, which causes them to dread that they've traded their children's long-term health for prospects at overachievement.
But on those fast days, Hashem unleashes the Holy Terror of Low Blood Sugar, adolescents fighting, not understanding directions, interpreting every comment as a personal attack, striking at the dark heart of our insecurities as people and a people. Even for the non-Orthodox, there seem to be more food commercials on Yom Kippur than any other day of the year. Fast days are not meant to be pleasant, they're meant to be solemn - a remembrance that the world is not the pleasant place we hope, and by paying the price of our portion of happiness on those fast days, we will be that much more prepared when inevitable tragedy makes its presentation.
Unlike Shiva-Assar b'Tammuz, which takes place in July, the January dusk is mercifully early. Nevertheless it falls on a Sunday. The kinder are all home with nothing to do, and Mama Freylik just has to get the kinder over thirteen to five-fifteen. Lots of games with all the kinder together, lots of singing, lots of promises that they'll have a great dinner. Rinah, seventeen and on the way to the Chuppah herself in a few months, is clearly too tired to properly function. Avigail, fourteen and much too strong willed to get a shatkhan at eighteen, and is snapping at Mameh today for making her do chores that would ordinarily be Rinah's. Yitzhak (or Tzakhi), just barely Bar Mitzvah age, is throwing a ball around the house when she isn't looking.
The rest are not Bar-Mitzvah age yet, and require from Mameh all the focus of a day that she would normally stress eat her way through. Zohar is four and has her third bad cold in six months and again needs somebody to run out and get her medicine, Hephzibah is six months, crying and particularly colicky today, Sasson is eight and always in trouble - today she's shouting at Naima for getting snot all over her, Tirtza is eleven and painfully shy so she needs Mameh to be a friend to her, Yuval is ten and always tormenting Tirtza, and if seven year old Zemirah doesn't stop singing soon Ori will throw his Streimel at her.
But most important is Simcha, who has to be kept reading. He's the only child she knows what to do with. The moment he stops he's going to snap at whoever is nearest to him and point out everything he thinks is wrong. So who can blame her that when he steps outside, she locks the door?
It's four o'clock and Bethany just came back to her house from a twelve-hundred calorie burger, wet fries, and shake at Mel's Drive-Inn with some girl friends from Church. They go outside with some ice tea and chocolates. It's supposed to rain later, but seemingly as always, it's a seventy degree day.
With her are her three besties from San Francisco Friends. Alenna Gwynn, descended on her father's side from William the Conqueror and on both sides from Charlamagne, Zara Stewart, whose great-grandfather changed his name from Stern and whose grandfather on the other side still thinks Hitler was a great man, and Vicki Jewel, whose white mother risked everything to marry Rufus Jewel in Alabama, and after Rufus was sent to prison, risked everything again to await his release in San Francisco where they might start over. Bethany doesn't know this, but Kristina exploited the opportunity of Bethany's distraction to sneak off with a grad student from UC Santa Cruz.
While Bethany's been volunteering at her mother's shelters, Alenna's been taking classes at Berkeley for college credit, Zara's been seeing boys and psychiatrists, and Vicki's been smoking weed and listening to jam bands. The friendships of teens are always unstable, and by the summer they'll have completely broken apart, going their separate ways on life's tributary rivers only to reunite in the massive post-college river of ennui within the vastly expanded cliques and hookup networks of single young adults.
Yes, Alenna takes these classes at Berkeley, but even at Berkeley, a young woman requires good luck, and Alenna has it yet again - the good luck of a Berkeley history class taught not by one of those Senior Professor Great Man History Wasps who teaches two classes a year for the privilege of hitting on his co-eds who need good grades because his brother is a general or investment banker and he needs to show himself he amounted to something, but by a one-year appointment forty-something woman who seems to have taught five introductory American history classes in a different state every semester for the last twenty years. She was born to terrible poverty in either Kentucky or Flushing, but in three decades, she'll be honored as one of the great pioneers in her field for her dozen separate books on the otherization of female bodies in Edwardian bordellos. She's been divorced for ten years and since then raised two sons alone. The older is nineteen and already in jail for six months, having beaten up the abusive new boyfriend of his ex.
From Professor Farbissheim, Alenna learns that history is not shaped by men of natural genius who rise above the din to shape our destinies as a puppet does marionettes, but that these men have to make an extra effort to gain control over the rest of us, and world history is therefore senseless oppression, marginalization, and otheriztion, which we all are unwittingly conditioned to accept these insidious biases of our ingrained conditioning as the inevitable human state of being when we can in fact subvert them. And we therefore become biased to perpetuate our captivity through the biases of our very languages, which ingrain in us subliminal dismissals of the capabilities of certain kinds of bodies and the mental capabilities they house. There are two students in the class who object to her rendering of human events in the most strenuous of terms, grinding the class to a halt at every meeting to explain why the teacher is wrong. One is a short Jewish boy with glasses who sits in the front, another is a tall Jewish boy with a cap who sits in the back. The very way which they object quietly seems to Aleena, to Dr. Farbissheim, to a narrow majority of the class's students, as confirmation of the Professor's interpretation. And it's all this which Alenna is so eager to share with them - all three of whom feel sudden awakenings to possibilities they until this moment could not imagine, fears they could not express, and rage for which they had no outlet. All of which come out of frustrations which, even after Aleena explained them with all the confidence of a teenager who feels she's the master of her subject, Bethany was unsure she ever felt.
But to both Zara and Vicki, this explains everything - the beginning, the end, the whole of their lives and struggle from the mouth of recalled time to the present moment - and even if it's not true, they feel the flame of hope burning particularly for them for the very first time in their young existences. Their humiliations have a name, their suffering has a meaning, and they can work toward the day when life exists as an experience better than to be endured.
My Conversation with comedian Dave Barry
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